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Cycling mothers show path to more road safety

Car-free living
Safe to school

In which traffic situations do mothers who cycle to school with their kids feel unsafe? And, more importantly, why?Through a qualitative, in-depth customer journey mapping exercise with Belgian moms, Mobiel 21 tested an innovative research method and identified specific recommendations for policymakers who wish to improve road safety for all, including mothers and children.

Parents play a crucial role in deciding how their children go to school. Most of the time, they chose which mode of transport their children use and which route they take to reach the school gate. And although cycling to school seems like an obvious choice for many children, for their parents, it is not. Why? Because for parents, safety concerns are decisive and often trump all other considerations. Surveys in the Belgian city of Leuven, for example, show that especially women think traffic in their neighbourhood is not safe enough to allow children to cycle to school independently.

That is not just a sad observation, but also one that deserves more scrutiny. Which situations do mothers deem unsafe? And, more importantly, why? What can be done about it, so more parents are comfortable with their children cycling to school?

Customer Journey Mapping

To answer these questions, Mobiel 21 reached out to the target group of cycling mothers in Leuven, its hometown. Goal of this outreach was to involve cycling mothers in in-depth qualitative research into their sense of road safety, with a focus on the urban environment.

During the second half of 2023, we subjected cycling mothers to a Customer Journey Mapping (CJM) exercise. Specifically, we followed 18 moms and their kids on their morning bike ride to school and mapped this route. At fixed locations, participants were invited to give a score indicating how safe they felt at that specific spot. These scores formed the basis for in-depth interviews with the mothers, conducted immediately after the bike ride. We also gathered some personal details about each participant through a short telephone survey before the bike ride.

All in all, two Mobiel 21 researchers carried out these CJM exercises, following and interviewing each mother individually. On the one hand, CJM proved relatively time- and labour-intensive as a research method, limiting the number of participants. On the other hand, it provides valuable personal and practical insights into how our roads can cater to everyone. Such instructive insights cannot be gained by simply subjecting participants to an abstract survey or a stand-alone interview. Our experience indicates that the CJM methodology could and should, in other words, be used more broadly in qualitative mobility research as it can be applied to diverse target groups, different types of trips, and various emotional factors other than sense of safety.

Cycling with children remains a challenge

During all bike rides and interviews, it became clear that all participating mothers were motivated and committed cyclists, who care deeply about road safety. Their stories indicate that it sometimes takes dedication to continue cycling with children, especially when they feel unsafe. Interestingly, several participants indicated that there is no real societal recognition that cycling with children is important, yet challenging at the same time. Not by other road users, not in our rules and regulations, not in policy measures and not in infrastructure design either.

Obviously, participants relayed diverse experiences and feelings. Our researchers observed a range of ways in which individual mothers deal with unsafe traffic situations. In general, however, some common conclusions can be drawn about the factors influencing their sense of safety.

Cyclists' sense of safety is impacted by...

1. The presence of motorized traffic: Chaotic traffic situations, where space is poorly organized for various road users, lead to a stronger feeling of insecurity and more conflicts with motorized traffic. The amount of motorized traffic, the presence and speed of heavy traffic, and the distance cars keep from cyclists also play a role.

2. Clear rules and signage: Knowing how to behave as a cyclist gives a safer feeling. Confusing signs and rules not only increase feelings of insecurity, they also make it more difficult to teach children traffic skills and give them clear instructions while on the road.

3. The behaviour of other road users: A lack of understanding and impatience on the part of other road users, both motorized and non-motorized, towards novice cyclists as well as people riding a less agile or larger bike also plays a role in participants' sense of safety.

4. A safe school environment: The majority of participants considers their child’s school environment to be chaotic, but safe. This feeling of safety increases even more when measures have been taken to remove motorized traffic from the school environment.

Recommendations for policymakers

Based on the insights and conclusions of our research, as well as suggestions by the participants, recommendations can be formulated for policymakers to increase the sense of safety amongst cycling mothers in particular, and the general public more broadly.

  • Create protected or separated cycle paths
  • Make intersections and crossings conflict-free
  • Prioritize low-traffic streets
  • Reduce the speed of motorized traffic
  • Avoid mixing heavy traffic with bicycle traffic
  • Ensure unambiguous regulations and clear signage
  • Create campaigns to increase understanding, amongst all road users, of the different types and speeds of cyclists
  • Communicate about traffic rules that protect cyclists, and ensure that those rules are properly enforced
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Want to learn more about our CJM research?

Sam Delespaul

All For Zero

This research project was part of the All For Zero initiative, supported by the federal Minister of Mobility Georges Gilkinet, the Federal Public Service Mobility & Transport as well as Vias Institute.

Through this initiative, various authorities in Belgium seek to reduce the number of road deaths in the country to zero by 2050. An ambitious goal that we can only achieve by working together. All For Zero therefore actively involves citizens in improving road safety and encourages local initiatives to make their own street, neighbourhood or municipality safer.

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